27 Oct 2015

Another week another Island - Chestnut Bunting, Papa Westray

I was in Vienna last week when Fred Fearn sent me a photo of an unusual bunting that had been found on the remote Orkney Island of Papa Westray. The bird was partially obscured but the thoughts were it was a Chestnut Bunting, a bird that so far hasn't made it to the British list due to the uncertainty about escaped cage birds in the past. This bird had all the right credentials though turning up at the same time as other Siberian vagrants on the Northern Isles such as Whites Thrush & Siberian Rubythroat. The bird was forgotten though as it had promptly disappeared and no more thought was given to going to see it.

However, the bird was re-found at the weekend and with space available on a flight I found myself picking up Al early morning and setting off for the airfield. Luckily we received news the bird was still present from the ranger on the island so we  were pretty confident! At the very least Papa was a new island for me.
Co-pilot Orton keeping an eye on proceedings in the cockpit

Jonathan (the ranger) met us of our flight and led us to where the bird was feeding unconcernedly in long vegetation. For the next couple of hours it played hide and seek occasionally showing but only partially whilst feeding voraciously.

Our patience was rewarded though when it flew onto an adjacent dry stone wall.

It showed here for a few minutes before flying over the wall into the next field and suddenly appearing below a 5 bar gate no more than a few metres from where we stood. It showed here unconcerned by human presence, occasionally feeding,  before scuttling off back to feed in its favoured area of pineapple mayweed and annual meadow grass!

A great trip and a fantastic island. Although we didn't see many other birds I did pick up a flyover Lapland Bunting and a small flock of barnacle Geese. With a relatively uneventful flight home (apart from the plane not starting and having to be jump started with the airfield fire engine!) it was a long but satisfying day.
Papa Westray International airport...........................

Hopefully this will be the 1st Chestnut Bunting on the British list! The close views gave us opportunity to check for any signs of captivity such as abnormal feather wear and broken / damaged claws.

Sunset over northern Scotland.

23 Oct 2015

More garden ringing.

The influx of Goldcrests and Coal Tits into the garden continues and follows a national trend. Three more Coal Tits were ringed recently wit ha fourth being a retrap form last month. Another Goldcrest was also ringed. Birds of interest included this adult Great Tit with a deformed bill ringed back in November 2011 as an adult making it at least 5 years old. Its bill was normal in 2011  and it looks as if the lower mandible has been broken at some point and the trauma has resulted in the whole bill growing deformed.

I also cuaght this interesting juvenile Goldfinch that had undergone an extensive post juvenile moult. Goldfinches can occasionally moult some of their primaries in their post juvenile moult but this was unusual in that it had moulted all the inner ones leaving p6 -p10 un-moulted. It had moulted most of its primary coverts leaving the outer two un-moulted and was in the process of moulting its tail. The wear on the tail and primaries was consistent with it being a juvenile bird rather than a bird born last year that had undergone an arrested moult.

Below: close up crop showing retained juvenile primaries and un-moulted primary coverts. The juvenile primary coverts are more pointed and have worn tips compared to the rounder nelwy moulted adult ones.

All interesting stuff and a final photo showing a Great Tit that had retained its two outer juvenile greater coverts during its post juvenile moult. Although Blue Tits commonly do this its much rarer in Great Tits.

19 Oct 2015

Wilson's Warbler

 There was a moments suspended disbelief when news broke of a male Wilson's Warbler on the Isle of Lewis exactly 30 years ago to the day of the only other UK record at Rame Head in Cornwall. Few people were lucky enough to see that bird so this one was going to cause a lot of interest. Due to work commitments I couldn't go straight away but arranged with Steve I'd pick him up to drive through the night to catch the first flight to Stornoway from Edinburgh a few days later.

Setting off from home sat 10 pm I picked Steve up and set off. The journey passed without incident and we soon arrived at the outskirts of Glasgow where we refuelled. Paul & Vicky Wren, who I'd last seen on Fair Isle, were also at the services but they were flying from Glasgow.

Arriving at Edinburgh we parked up and settled in the Flybe lounge for breakfast before heading off to Stornoway and our hire car. We met Wirral birder Stuart Brown at the gate and we arranged that he should share our car. 

Arriving on site at Port Nis we were met by Tony Marr who'd found the bird in his neighbours garden. I first met Tony when I travelled to Lewis last November to see a Chimney Swift. True to character he helpfully showed us all the birds favoured haunts and with the arrival of Paul & Vicky we quietly spread out and waited. The presence of a Yellow-browed Warbler that had been in the same area as the Wilson's was a good sign...........

Thirty tense minutes passed before Stuart whispered 'I've got it'. There it was a fantastically bright yellow male Wilsons Warbler sat on a fence unconcerned by its admirers. I'd left my camera in the boot of the hire car not expecting such good views as the previous day's it had been very elusive and some people got only the briefest of views. As if to make up for its previous tardiness the bird showed continuously for about 2 minutes as it moved along the fence surrounding its favoured plantation. Luckily Steve had the sense to bring his camera out!

As more people arrived the bird became easier to relocate when it moved. We picked it up on call several times as it flew to different parts of its temporary territory. After a few hours we decided to explore Lewis a bit further with the intention of returning to see the Wilsons Warbler later in the afternoon before our flight home. Stu Taylor, who I know from his RSPB days on the Dee Estuary, made the journey up from his current home on Benbecula. Last time I saw him was when we went for the Harlequin Duck on N Uist and he kindly showed us around and arranged our overnight accommodation so it was good to have a natter with him.

Driving to the Butt of Lewis we birdied a few sites with no success before just enjoying the spectacular views around the lighthouse.

Yours truly with the Butt of Lewis lighthouse in the background.
The famous lighthouse where a few years ago Britains only Purple Martin took up temporary residence.

With time pressing we headed back to Port Nis to find Lee Evans and friends panicking slightly as the bird hadn't been seen since we left. Luckily for them Steve relocated it and we said our goodbyes to Tony and headed back to the airport.

Twitching is a game of 3rds. The first 3rd is actually getting to site. The 2nd is seeing the bird and the final 3rd is getting home. As long as the first 2/3 rds are a success the final part doesn't really matter as long as you eventually get home. Our luck ran out with the final 3rd. Loganair cancelled our flight due to mechanical issues. We waited for 4 hrs before they decided to put us on the plane that was supposed to be going to Inverness. They planned to drop us off in Edinburgh then fly back for the Inverness passengers. We were sat on the plane when the ground agent told us there'd been a change of plan and we now went flying but would have to wait until the morning. Everything was a bit shambolic but we eventually determined we'd receive compensation and the airline were putting us up in a hotel overnight, giving us a £20 food voucher and paying for the transfers each way. The only downside was we were being flown to Glasgow in the morning where the airline would transfer us by taxi or coach to Edinburgh! Making the most of the situation Stuart, Steve & I enjoyed a good meal and a few beers before heading for some well earned rest. All of us had been up for over 24 hrs with just a brief nap on the incoming flight. 

After a good sleep and a heart breakfast we took our allocated taxi back to Stornoway airport and checked in. Hours passed before the announcement was made that Glashoe airport was fog bound and we'd be delayed. Cynically Loganair got us onboard so they wouldn't have to pay more compensation for a 2nd delayed flight. We sat for ages on the runway without moving whilst the captain waited for a weather update. 

We made two aborted attempts to land at Glasgow before the captain announced we'd have to divert to Prestwick to refuel. Naively we expected to be allowed off the plane and that arrangements would be made to transfer us from Prestwick to Edinburgh. However the airline had other ideas. Since we were on on a flight to Glasgow we'd have to wait on the plane until it had refuelled and then wait until the fog had learned at Glasgow to land there and get our transfer to Edingburgh.

A minor rebellion ensued with a group us us refusing to accept this stupidity - at least if we got off at Prestwick we knew what time we'd be getting home! Eight of us insisted in getting off the plane only to be told we'd have to arrange our own transport to Edinburgh. Talk about poor customer service. Six of us hired a minicab and eventually arrived at Edinburgh 18 hours late!

Eventually I arrived home at 19.00 a full 21 hours after I'd left home. A great trip though with good company & a good craic. 

13 Oct 2015

Fair Isle 2015

This is going to be a long and photo heavy post! After visiting Shetland mainland every autumn since 2007 the opportunity came up to visit Fair Isle and stay at the world famous bird Observatory. My travelling companions this time were Fred & Chris with Mark, Al & Pod electing to stay on the mainland.

Picking Fred up at 04.45 we arrived at Manchester airport in time for a cooked breakfast before our flight to Aberdeen and then onward to Shetland. Meeting Chris, who'd come across on the ferry, we waited at Tingwall airport for news of our flight to Fair isle. Unfortunately, due to low cloud, no flights were able to leave and some had even departed then turned back. Luckily the others were renting a house in Lerwick and had spare beds so we had somewhere to stay for the night and we enjoyed a good few beers!

Next morning there were a few sore heads but we were up and out early to arrive at Tingwall and catch our re-arranged flight to Fair Isle! The planes are small 6 seater Islanders and the flight itself is an experience taking roughly 30 minutes.

 Our first glimpse of Fair Isle 
 Coming in to the airstrip! 
Chris and Fred celebrating a safe landing.

Arriving at the 'airport' we were met by Obs warden Dave Parnaby who gave us a lift to our accommodation for the next 6 nights. With rooms sorted we were out in the field and decided to explore the north of the Island.

Our trip started well when we discovered a Turtle Dove near the Obs with a nearby Glossy Ibis that had arrived the day before as one of a party of five.

Bonxies were marauding everywhere looking for an easy meal whilst Gannets and Fulmars fed in huge rafts out on the sea or lazed around on the cliffs.

 Gannets roosting on a stack.
 Looking back towards North Haven with the supply boat the Good Shepherd hauled out.

Looking back down towards the Bird obs.

North lighthouse.

There is very little cover on Fair isle so to see anything you have to check the geos and walk the ditches and small burns. Birding the geos isn't for the faint hearted, especially if you are afraid of heights, as you're peering over the top of some pretty high cliffs looking down at small warblers and crests feeding on the rocks.

 Chris & Fred birding a geo.
For two days the weather was appalling with high winds and torrential rain but we still managed to get out and about. When the weather was good enough we were walking 25 + km's per day. The commonest birds on the island were thrushes, pipits, larks, small warblers and goldcrests. Good numbers of Barnacle and Pinkfooted geese were also seen. With the wind switching south east expectations were high for some good birds and we witnessed the incredible sight of migration in full swing as small passerines and geese flew down the sheltered west side of the island and then up the Gris and over our heads. Of the warblers the commonest was Yellow-browed Warbler. its been an incredible year for these siberian waifs that should be wintering in S E Asia with record numbers being ringed on Fair Isle - including by me! Every geo and bush seemed to hold a  Yellow-browed!
 Barnacle Geese flying in
 Leucistic  Barnacle Goose 
 Male Blackcap feeding in a geo.
 Grounded Pinkfooted Goose. Unfortunately many birds were exhausted after their sea crossing and we picked up tired migrants regularly to put them somewhere safe from the islands murderous cats.

Yellow-browed Warbler feeding in a geo.

We soon got into a daily routine with me getting up early to help the Obs staff with the morning heligoland traps taking the birds caught back to the ringing room for ringing and processing. This  followed by a cooked breakfast and then a day out in the field with a packed lunch before returning in time for a shower and a quick shot of Fred's excellent bourbon before dinner and a few beers in the obs bar.
 Plantation heligoland trap.
We saw some fantastic birds in the hand including a 1st winter Bluethroat and a Siberian Chiffchaff.

Getting out and finding your own birds is what Fair Isle (and Shetland) is about and our 'finds' list included the previously mentioned Paddyfield Warbler (See post below),Olive-backed Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Richards Pipit ( a flock of 4 although we found out later someone had a flock of 5 flying in off the sea) and Siberian Chiffchaff. As well as these we caught up with birds others had found along with commoner stuff such as Snipe, Jack Snipe, Snow Bunting, Little Bunting and Common Rosefinch (see below).
Snow Bunting.
 Common Rosefinch
 Little Bunting.
Siberian Chiffchaff.
During our stay there was a marked increase in the number of owls found with Short-eared Owls and a Long-eared owl both being seen.  The Long-eared owl chose to roost in the garden of the health centre and could easily be seen from the only road on the island.
 Long-eared Owl.
Short-eared Owl

The scenery on Fair Isle is rugged and spectacular and we never tired of the views.

 The chapel near Da Water where we found the Paddyfield Warbler.

As well as the migrant birds Fair isle is home to the zetlandica race of Common Starling, its own race of Wren - Fair isle Wren and good numbers of Twite.

 All to soon our final day arrived and there was time for one more treat when assistant warden Ciaran pointed out a migratory Woodcok resting up on top of one of the cliffs on the east side.

We left Fair Isle for Shetland mainland where we spent the night at the Sumburgh Hotel (most of it in the bar!) with the occasional foray outside to view the aurora borealis or northern lights.

A great trip that wasn't marred in anyway by missing the Siberian Thrush seen briefly by assistant warden Lee and Fred who called us over when he re-discovered it in a geo where we'd been searching for it! Unfortunately as he yelled us over the bird flew off with a group of Redwing never to be seen again.

The following field sketch is dedicated to Mark & Pod for allowing us to stay at their place in Lerwick when our flight was cancelled.